Jim Wheaton watched in disbelief when the town he grew up in, North Wildwood, was overrun by the March Storm of 1962.
Several boats broke loose from Stone Harbor during that three-day storm and landed on the beach near his home on Surf Avenue. Even his lawn — considered one of the highest elevations in town — was beneath floodwater.
Fast-forward 50 years — during which North Wildwood added a seawall, dunes and other measures that help protect it from natural disasters — and the 81-year-old retired real estate agent fared far better with Hurricane Sandy.
Wheaton, who lives one door from his 1962 house, stayed in his home throughout Sandy. He never lost power, nor did he see water breach his curb.
“In ’62, I watched houses across the street from me get washed away entirely. There was no seawall to stop the sea,” he said. “This time, we were very fortunate. Without the seawall, we’d be a lot worse. Without the sand dunes, we’d be a lot worse.”
Making a direct comparison between the two storms is impossible, because their duration and path varied, but it’s clear the damage from Sandy could have been far more devastating had technological advances and more stringent building standards not come after the 1962 storm.
Sandy made landfall late Monday just south of Atlantic City, bringing with it wind gusts as high as 89 mph in Surf City and 77 mph in Atlantic City. Along the length of the barrier islands, the wind and rising tide eroded beaches and, in some cases, pushed sand to the back of boardwalks and seawalls. Piles of sand several feet deep have left streets impassable, and floodwaters destroyed millions of dollars worth of property.
Some of the worst damage was on Long Beach Island, where houses were pushed on top of each other. In Ocean County, north of the eye of the storm, strong winds moving counterclockwise pushed sand and water directly toward the island, said Kristin Kline, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, Burlington County.
Improvement to building codes, a product of the March Storm of 1962, may have helped limit damage from Sandy, according to contractors. For instance, new homes must be built to withstand hurricane-force winds, including clips that help hold a house together in severe wind conditions, said Michael Bonomo, 57, of Galloway Township, a handyman and house renovation contractor.
“If it were not for that, more people would have lost more,” he said.
Ed Koehler, a city councilman in North Wildwood who was in the area during the 1962 storm, pointed to other improvements, including adding bulkheads to the ends of streets and enacting standards that require some shoreline homes to be elevated.
“The building codes have changed to the point where construction now has to meet minimum heights above ground level. There was no such thing as those standards in 1962,” Koehler said. “A lot of the houses were bungalows in those days, much lower to the ground. If you put it all together, there was more total damage back then. There were houses on 26th Street and Delaware Avenue that literally lifted off of their foundations and floated away. We didn’t have that this time.”
But even with advances in building and forecasting technology, some homes will forever live under the threat of storm damage.
Scott Davenport, 56, of Corbin City, and his wife bought a 200-year-old house near the Tuckahoe River a few years ago. Davenport, a union carpenter, stripped the home to its foundation and considered elevating it before rebuilding. He didn’t, because the foundation would have crumbled had he tried.
The home’s low-lying position near the river meant that at the height of last week’s storm, Davenport was wading in waist-high water in the first floor of his house.
“It came through the front door,” he said of the water. “It got to a point where I couldn’t stop it.”
Now facing $30,000 worth of renovations and work that will likely take a month to complete, Davenport said he is resigned to whatever storm comes next.
“We’ll remodel again,” he said.
Since Sandy hit, researchers, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have traveled to several different areas of the coastline to gather information.
“It’s a historic event,” said Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the corps, adding that researchers have been conducting flyovers, looking at how well dunes built by the corps fared. “It’s an opportunity to look at the entire coast.”
Dunes have been a controversial point among New Jersey’s coastal residents, who protest that dunes block ocean views. The structures, however, appeared to have helped shield the community from some storm damage, observers say.
“Some people complained when they put in those sand dunes that they’d lose their views. But, guess what? Without the sand dunes, I think they’d have a lot of water damage there, too,” Wheaton said.
Water level during Sandy reached an elevation of about 6 feet in Cape May and Atlantic City on the North American Vertical Datum scale, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Sandy Hook, the water level reached a high of more than 10 feet.
The dunes in Atlantic City were built to a height of 14.75 feet. In Ventnor, they are 12.75 feet, and in Brigantine they are 10 feet, according to the corps. On Long Beach Island, the dunes were designed to rise to 22 feet, but in some cases they were nonexistent for a variety of reasons, including opposition from homeowners.
Even with the dunes, many homes and businesses on the barrier islands took on seawater, including the Island Beach Gear store in Ocean City. Owner and city resident Beverley Gill, 59, was at the Egg Harbor Township Home Depot on Friday with her husband’s cousin, Gary Thomas, 63, and workers to buy lumber. The Island Beach Gear store’s warehouse took on water, and workers plan to build a platform on which to dry the merchandise, Thomas said.
Gill, who was a child during the 1962 storm, said that in some ways Sandy was more destructive, sparing her home but completely flooding and damaging a neighbor’s older home.
“When you live by the water, it’s the way of life,” Gill said of Sandy.
Before the storm, crews from the U.S. Geological Survey’s water division deployed 150 storm-surge sensors from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to the Maine coast. Crews are recovering the sensors, which measured water elevation every half-minute. The agency said the information will be used to determine whether wind or floods did the most damage and improve computer models that forecast future coastal changes.
The USGS is expected to deploy an airborne laser system to measure the elevation of the shoreline beaches, which will be compared with measurements taken before the storm, spokeswoman Hilary Stockdon said.
The agency had forecast before Sandy’s arrival that the storm would erode many Atlantic beaches. With the measurements, researchers will be able to assess the accuracy of their forecasts. Stockdon said much of the technology being used wasn’t available for the 1962 storm.
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